Released August 29th in theaters, THE CALLING, director Jason Stone’s first feature length film, is a taught, smart and noteworthy mystery thriller. Lacking the usual shock value tactics of films in the genre, it lures you with its intelligence and quiet but deeply unsettling suspense. Beautiful sequences unfold which build the story, and right where you fear it may become predictable it turns another corner with grace and skill. With a phenomenally cast group of actors, a few more familiar to American audiences than others, we are led into the cold desolate existence of Port Dundis and of our protagonist Hazel Micallef – Susan Sarandon as you’ve never seen her before. Stone shows skill far beyond his experience and it was a tremendous pleasure and opportunity to speak with him last week. PLEASE NOTE: there are some spoilers in this interview. Proceed with caution if you have not seen the film.
Cinemynx: Let me start by saying that I have seen the film twice, and I really really love it. I liked it after the first viewing, but it grew even more, with its nuances, and the intelligence of the film grew on me even more after the second time. It is really an intelligent film.
Jason Stone: Thank you!
C: I think that’s a rare commodity these days. It can be hard to tell when someone adapts a novel for the screen how much is yours, as the director, how much came from the novel by Inger Ash Wolf, and how much came from your cast. Could you please speak to that and what drew you to the project?
JS: To address your first point, the novel was rich with…everything…from the story to the characters to the world they inhabit and the mystery behind it. All of the biblical mysticism and all of those elements were in the book. But I think as with all films you have to figure out how to condense something which is maybe 300 or 400 pages long to something delivered in a two-hour form, and in an obviously different form. You end up making choices. In this case I had not read the book – I deliberately didn’t read the book – because the writer Scott (Abramovitch) adapted the first draft of the screenplay before I even came aboard. He was so well versed with the material I thought it would be beneficial for me to go at it with the most objective point of view, where we could bring in new ideas and dismiss certain other ideas and not be too precious about it. That way Scott couldd represent all material in the book and I could come in with a fresh view of it. That’s one of the big commodities when you’re making a film – to try and find a way to look at your material with fresh eyes and in this case since I hadn’t adapted the book myself, I thought I could bring more to it if I kept an objective view of it. Which I think actually worked out. I can give you a couple of examples. The scene where they (the police) are starting to put it all together…
C: …I was going to touch upon the scene later so I’m glad that you’re bringing it up…
JS: That scene is all about connecting the dots and what’s connecting all these different victims is the manipulation of the mouths. And then it turns out that there are different enunciations of syllables of a prayer and that’s how they get to the Latin words, which is how they get to “Liberare Eos” which gives them their biggest leap forward in getting closer to understanding why and who is doing this. So in the book it was actually I believe a 3-D computer model that was digitally speeding through the pictures of the faces. I just thought that in a small town like this they wouldn’t have access to technology like that and I didn’t even know that technology like that really even existed. I did some research and I couldn’t find anything that existed other than a technology to help train lipreading. I felt that that was too high-tech for the world that we were trying to build so I thought that something really interesting, because we had all of these syllables, would be the idea of a flip-book through the photographs. I felt that would be even more chilling and more visual and would not involve a leap of faith of a technology, while allowing the audience to figure it out while the characters were figuring it out. That was really important to me, so that everybody in the story – audience included – kind of figures it out altogether. We brought somebody in to help with that and we photographed all the victims with various versions of each syllable and then pulled all the syllables together and made them animate in a way that, looking at it objectively, it starts to look like there is one person speaking one phrase. When that was seen collectively, and when we saw the demo and it worked, I thought ‘this is going to be fantastic.‘ That scene is one of the coolest scenes that we had to shoot just because it’s so visual, so haunting, like hearing words from beyond the grave from all the victims and it came together really nicely.
C: Yes, I agree, and one of the things I have in my notes here is that I felt that scene really elevates the film to a thinking person’s thriller. I give you tremendous credit for the fact that there’s very little shock value or melodrama, and it really is an intellectual mystery. The way that scene unfolds, especially with the petty chatter of the other police officers, which almost serves as a white noise to help Hazel to focus, the timing and the way that it was framed was just incredible. As it becomes evident what is happening and what the purpose of the different mouth shapes is in the victims, I thought to myself ‘get a lip reader!’ I think the flip-book analogy creates a beautiful and key scene.
JS: Thank you – I’m glad it translated well to you also.
C: I can’t imagine that I’m the first person to ask you about any parallels that may have been in your mind between your approach to this film and the film FARGO. We have women police officers, and a desolate cold place where this bizarre crime occurs. If my calculations are correct I estimated that you were about 15 years old when FARGO came out, and maybe you were a film fanatic, as I was and continue to be, and I want to ask you what kind of impact that film had on you, and whether you referenced it purposefully?
JS: Well, FARGO is one of my favorite films of all time, so I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t some level of influence. Maybe not even influence, but something that really excited me about getting to play in that world, I remember when I saw FARGO in the theater, I probably saw it two to three times, was I was floored by it and I loved everything about it; the irreverence of death that that movie takes, which I think is a theme in all Cohen brothers movies, and makes them funny and brilliantly dark. But I will say that because I was so acutely aware of the connections that would be drawn between the two, I was actually trying to fight my way away from it. Any chance we could take to move in a different direction – whether it was visual or narrative obviously – ours is mystery thriller, FARGO is more of a, it’s hard to describe, it’s a thriller too but it’s a very black comedy. Ours may have a few comic moments but it’s definitely not a comedy nor a black comedy by any stretch. From my earliest discussions with my costume designer (Georgina Yarhi) about the wardrobe, I was trying to fight my way away from, and getting away from Francis McDormand and the “Marge Gunderson look.” But at the end of the day a woman in the winter in the north in a small town is going to wear a parka and she’s going to wear a hat…
C: …A lady cop is a lady cop…
JS: Yes! A lady cop in the winter is a lady cop in winter! What I felt was a really fun thing, which happened on the first day the first thing we shot, was the scene where Susan (Sarandon) drives her car up and grabs the breakfast sandwich from the guy waiting, and she was driving into the sun and the sun was bright and right in her face and she asked if she could get a pair of sunglasses. Our wardrobe people went to her with a few choices, and she pulled this great pair of great Ray Bans and as soon as she put them on I was like, ‘That’s fantastic – it’s a totally different take on her role,’ and that became her look. Anytime she’s outdoors she’s got the sunglasses on, which is a nice way to move away from any previous looks that have been established (in prior films) so maybe the comparisons would be less pronounced. But at the same time you know, if we’re going to get compared to FARGO, I take it as the highest compliment.
C: Also let’s not forget that the pool from which we are drawing comparisons is pretty slim; winter, desolate lady cop stories are are not every day stories!
Let’s stay with Hazel for a little bit because I think you’ve crafted some really exquisite balances with the narrative. There are a few things that occurred to me; that we have the storyline with the Simon/Peter character trying to get his 12 sacrifices, but the story is also very much about Hazel and her own redemption, at the very least in her own eyes, and she’s just so touch, but at the same time she’s endearing. Susan Sarandon is an incredibly skilled actress, but I think too that it could have easily gone to an extreme of one kind or another in the portrayal of her addiction. Addiction is a really tough thing to get right, as you can easily fall into a horrifically stereotyped LEAVING LAS VEGAS figure, and I think it is even harder with a female character. But she is one of those characters that is so long addicted that they can only appear functional after their pretty seriously lubed. I have to ask whether you’ve ever been close to that kind of addiction, or have a personal experience of people like that because it was handled really deftly.
JS: Well thank you. I would give Susan most of the credit for that. I feel it was just a matter of never playing into it or trying to show desperation because anybody who suffers with those kinds of things isn’t parading it around. They’re dealing with it in the darkest corners of their mind, and with a little bit of shame as well. Hazel deals with it unapologetically. She was wearing it on her sleeve, but she wasn’t parading around or trying to hide it to the point where she was paralyzed by it. We never wanted to make that the centerpiece of the story. It was an aspect of her character and allowed for the construction of the character, and it is very much a real thing in small remote places where there are not a lot of ways or a lot of places to deal with with hardship whether it’s pills or whether it’s alcohol. People choose the vices they have available to them and that was something that was there from the outset of story. As far as my own experience with it, very thankful that no one in my own family has been addicted to anything beyond cigarettes. My experience was just a matter of trying to keep it honest and not exploit it.
C: You really get the sense that Hazel really needs the ‘win,’ really needs this personal victory of solving the case. And it’s very subtle and methodical. Then of course at the end, for lack of a better metaphor, she has her ‘come to Jesus’ moment with Peter and the interplay in that scene between the two of them is beautiful because she allows herself to get in touch with her own doubt, and we get to see his power and how deeply compelling he can be. That tied it all up really nicely – the horribly tortured path that she has been walking and her desperate need for the victory of getting the case solved.
JS: Yes. I feel like as much as a professional victory as that scene was, the conceptual idea behind the whole story which drew me to it, in part ,was the idea that Simon’s character is a guy exploiting weakness and desperation in people who can no longer cope or tolerate whatever illness and struggles they’re dealing with and are ready to find an out. Hazel’s character to a lesser extent is dealing with a similar situation. So that intersection of someone at the end of their line and someone who is exploiting that very weakness, that’s what made that scene so interesting. And hopefully it delivers on that.
C: Oh absolutely – it delivers that powerfully. I’m going to switch gears a little bit because I want to talk about Christopher Heyerdahl (who plays Simon/Peter). He has an amazing presence and there’s no getting around that he is extremely Christlike. He is at times benevolent but at times really threatening. I have to ask how much of the choice to cast him had to do with his looks?
JS: His looks? There was an element of that but I’ll tell you that role was the hardest to cast. It the last role we cast, and a bunch of fantastic actors come out and read and test for it, and it was just such a tricky balance because you have to have that gentleness which had to feel authentic and come from really really deep within, yet still be able to be unbelievably menacing. The character really had to imbue the whole environment and chew up the scenery that he was in with menace and and unease which is what gave the film its mood. I was worried that the movie wouldn’t work because we couldn’t find somebody that was going to be able to pull that off. Chris sent in a self tape of the scene with the little girl, and in that scene he just stared into the camera as if we were the opposing actor and just nailed it. The whole scene he never broke eye contact, he never got loud, and without really doing much of anything it was unbelievably unsettling. It’s a bit of a magic trick. It’s a similar magic trick to what Susan can pull off where she is sarcastic, caustic and biting but at the same time still totally lovable and sympathetic. It’s an amazing thing that great actors can do where they can keep you on their side – with them – even when their actions should throw you for further away from them.
C: Yes and I would say that for me, which I really picked up on in my second viewing, is in that final scene with Susan when she puts the bowl to her mouth, and then says, ‘No, I really want to live,’ Chris’ overwhelming disappointment is so powerful that I found myself pitying him. He actually moves you and you have to stop yourself and remember, that is is villainous and totally crazy. But he brings you there. How difficult that is to convey – to actually allow the audience to feel his disappointment in the singular quest he has been on- and it really comes from a place of love no matter how delusional it may be.
JS: And that was exactly the approach we took with it. Chris would be the first to tell you that he really was operating out of a place of mercy and love and there were a few moments, and we talked about what those moments would be, where he would reveal and he would lose control just enough to show you that he wasn’t impregnable to emotional swings. That allowed you to feel unsettled and to have unpredictability as to when the next moment would show up. But most of the performance he is totally present and essentially in love with the people he’s killing. And it comes from that place, it comes from mercy it doesn’t come from violence.
C: You feel that as the viewer and it is just a remarkable ability that he has. That’s a tall order.
JS: It totally is, it totally is.
C: The cast in general is really interesting. Kevin Parent who plays the medical examiner Spere, is so perfect: completely unswayed by the extreme gore, and thinks everything is really cool no matter how gruesome it is. And you have a beautiful segue of him examining a victim up close whose injury has to do with his stomach, and then immediately following is a scene which shows him consuming a huge plate of sloppy ribs. That’s great subtke humor and there are a few moments of underplayed humor. He was wonderful and I noticed in looking little more closely that your location was Canada, and a lot of the actors were Canadian. That can’t possibly be a coincidence. Was there some thought about being in Canada so you wanted to utilize the Canadian talent, or was there a different rhyme and reason behind the casting?
JS: There were very practical reasons behind that. Because we were shooting in Canada and we just didn’t have the budget to bring any and every actor we wanted in, we had to test locally. But Robin Cook was our local casting director and she did us a huge favor because she basically works on tremendous blockbusters and casts the biggest films that get made in Canada, but because she loved Susan, wanted to work on the project and loved the script as well, she brought in such an incredible array of talent for all the supporting characters. I felt that was key to doing this film, and a lot of films that are shot in more remote places, when you happen to be limited with your talent pool, and I never once felt that we had to compromise on a role and put somebody on camera that wasn’t just perfect for that role.
C: And I think that shows…
JS: I’m so pleased about that. It was something that I was very very key on accomplishing and you never know until you actually shoot it that you’re going to get it. But every day that I was casting with Robin I thought ‘oh my God, we have three great options – we have a gluttony of riches.‘ And that’s a testament to the Toronto talent pool of actors and to Robin. And obviously the cast that we were bringing in drew a really high caliber of talent. We were really lucky.
C: They all really worked so well with each other. As an ensemble, and there’s a true synergy among the entire cast, which doesn’t happen all the time needless to say. I know our time is short and there are just a couple of things I really want to touch upon. One of the things that I tend to notice in film is the palette and the atmosphere that’s created through the use of color. The first half of the film has very cold, wintry blue cast to it. There’s a palatable chill which permeates every scene whether it’s indoors or out. Then, as we move towards the latter half of the film I felt that there was a shift to a warmer palette – more golden almost. As Peter reaches the the completion of his mission, things start to warm up and become a more “divine” color. At the end, there is the scene where he puts the gun to his head, falls and grabs the cloth on the table in slow motion, and bottles and the hot plate fall to the ground. In particular that sequence looks exactly like an old Dutch Masters painting. It’s so beautiful. I don’t know if that was what you were going for but it creates the effect of a moment out of time and I felt that the color in that shot, and the shift in color throughout the film was almost like another character in itself. Was that intentional?
JS: Very much so. That’s a great compliment to reference the painterliness of the ending. The drift in shade of the whole story I don’t know if I actually consciously set out to do it in terms of planning it that way, but I think emotionally, because of the direction the story is going and because of the intimacy that scene has, and just on a practical basis of what you’re using for lighting in that scene – small lamps and fire – it becomes very warm naturally. I wasn’t trying to impose too much of a look. We did as much as we could in the actual design of the wardrobe and the set. We did cool it down just a bit the beginning, it wasn’t even really that much of a cooling down per se, it was more of a pulling out of some yellow and not using anything that was bright red or orange, like a stop sign. It was just a matter of keeping a controlled look without making it feel like it was forcing an aesthetic. It was not like TRAFFIC where every scene and every storyline is very pushed in a particular color. It’s very beautiful but it’s very obvious that you’re giving it a look, and I tried to just give it a look without making it too explicit. And Dave Jones (cinematographer), we worked together a lot and we have a very similar aesthetic as far as color scheme. I would say the one cognitive choice we made is that a lot of the design is being split between being a forest green and a dirt brown. And that the scheme is in a lot of the scenes and in the wardrobe and it was appealing and felt right for the world that we were exploring.
C: Additionally there is a noticeable lack of any kind of score. There are maybe two or three scenes where there’s just a little bit of added sound but I found myself being appreciateive that there was no score or music taking away from the true drama and the pace of discovery. It allowed you to not use events in the film merely for shock value. It really added to the experience for me. In the beginning of the project did you choose to not load it with music? Did you decide specifically to not create a score? Or, did that evolve as you looked to the dailies, as the film was edited and realized may be it didn’t need it?
JS: The answer is yes to both. I was very specific not to add any music in until we had a cut that was working. So every scene had to work on its own before we introduced anything else. Because music is so powerful and it can drown out mistakes and cover over problems in the storytelling you bring it in when it’s not working, and I think it keeps you from actually make the film work better. So for me, I wanted to keep it out until the last possible moment, but once we did have a cut that we felt was working quite well – the performances in the story were flowing with a good rhythm – there were a few key places that I did know I wanted to score. There were obvious moments like the discovery moment with the victim’s faces. I wanted to get that an ethereal elevated vibe where were going outside the mundane reality that we’ve been in. And then there’s the montage where they are putting things together with the toxicology reports because it’s just not very fun to look at a montage of paper reports without any music. I think it’s just a matter of trying to not force-feed an emotion in a scene and not trying to force an audience to feel something that isn’t already there.
C: …but that’s a leap of faith on your part. And leap of faith I think many films – too many – try to spoon-feed what the audience needs and is “supposed” to feel. So, to allow us to have our own reaction and our own connection to it, is a bold move.
JS: Thank you. Also just given where we ended it and the ambiguity of the final scene, if I had over scored it and had tried to force an audience to take a position on the ending that they might not have taken naturally, it would’ve done the film a disservice. In the end, depending on who you are and what your beliefs are, maybe some people will take the ending to mean something wholly different than others.
C: The ending is great! You’re watching, and you get to that final shot and think to yourself ‘now wait a minute…” I know our time is almost up, but I have to close with one final question: you’ve have some pretty good experience with comedy as the executive producer of THIS IS THE END, and the short upon which that movie was based. THE CALLING is your first feature-length directorial effort and I know that there are other books featuring Hazel Micallef as the protagonist. Is that something you’ve thought about – do you want to continue in this vein? Do you really want to sink your teeth into the mystery-thriller franchise versus doing projects which couldn’t be more opposite like the comedies you have previously been involved with? Where you going after this really beautiful film that you’ve made?
JS: I feel like my appetite is pretty eclectic. Obviously the two films that you mentioned are very very different. Aside from the fact they have a Christian connection. The next project I’m working on is a script that I’ve written and its a grounded sci-fi film. It’s sci-fi coming-of-age and it’s quite different than anything else I’ve done but it’s also closer probably to what I’ve been trying to do for a long time. As far as jumping back in with the Micallef chronicles yes, there are three books and I wouldn’t close the door on it. If Scott (Abromovitch) decided to auction the next book and write another awesome script I would definitely be opened to checking it out and jumping in again, but I think there’s a lot of stuff I want to do next and if I get the opportunity I’m going to try to keep changing it up.
C: As an aside, you really handled the issue of faith beautifully, and that’s a tough thing. I can imagine that there might be some Catholics who were really enraged but you are very respectful while keeping it so engaging. I greatly enjoyed the film and thank you. I look forward to seeing what you do next, and thank you speaking with me.
JS: Thank you so much.
Director: Jason Stone
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Ellen Burstyn, Gil Bellows, Christopher Heyerdahl
Running Time: 108 minutes
This interview was originally published at ScreenRelish.com and you can visit that great site, to which I am an honored contributor, here.
Interview Jason Stone